An End To Race

It is a subject that has intense meaning and depth of value to me. I used to teach children in the United States songs of a heritage built through a model of ownership that persisted into the middle 19th century– slave songs.  We all shared a heritage in it because the progeny of former singers were potentially seated alongside the progeny of former masters.  These songs were a singing legacy of a former reality, but much of its social reality, the pretense upon which slavery rested in the United States, is a reality the home of my birth continues to struggle with to this day.

In 1911 there was a congress held in London, a gathering of many thinkers and scholars across varied fields.  Among those present was an author who has nearly been effaced from the historical literary tradition of the United States: W. E. B. Dubois.  The conclusion that this congress came to was that “race” was a fiction.  Dubois was famous for his theses on the so-called “double consciousness” and it is remarkable to me that this relatively early work of his remains the work that is required reading on college course lists and receives continued attention from scholars, when, in fact, Dubois became an advocate of the idea that “race” as a self-constituting form was not and could not be other than fiction.  He essentially undermined his earlier work’s premise by turning against the idea of a multiplicity of identities based in racial codes.

And there is good reason to end discussions centered around, based in, confronting, and aligning themselves with races.

I have been reading a lot of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon of late, more specifically his works on Individuation of the Collective and Individual Psyche.  Simondon’s approach to the psyche from both levels of the individual and the collective was a unique one, as was his foundational theory that individuation itself is a process which gave meaning to information as it passed between transmitter and receiver: that both could be altered by the alteration of meaning in social contexts.  His was a philosophy of the social as active, meaning-centered, and derived from interaction between forces.

When I wrote a thesis on how the slave song was stolen by white popular entertainment as well as white collegiate choral programs and thereby lost its integral voice as a force for change, I took a vow banning words that ascribe race to people from my vocabulary.  A dear friend and colleague at the University of Amsterdam challenged me in this by saying that whether race doesn’t exist or not could not be addressed by banning the word.  Ending one’s usage of racial terminology couldn’t help change the social reality that race is.

I have struggled mentally with that challenge from that day to this, because it is an argument with some validity in my eyes.  Race has an undeniable social reality.  It has a social reality despite its fictive nature in the same way that Santa Claus has a fiscal, social, and even political reality (so-called wars on Christmas come to mind…) and, yet, every adult in the United States knows that Santa Claus does not “exist”.  Yet the rituals, social calendars, meanings, pervasive presence of this fictive being are hard to deny.

But I maintain that if every person in the United States forgot tomorrow who Santa Claus was, denied his existence, threw away their adherence to the fiscal and social manifestations that he has inspired, then he would “die” to the culture.  Such is the fight I want to begin by refusing proverbial house room in my vocabulary to ascriptions of race.  If I cannot think of a better adjective to reach for to describe another human being than their skin color, then I have failed in my duty as a human to see the person across from me as more than the inheritor of a legacy of slavery and hate in the land of my birth: a social order born of a misbegotten premise.  We have all kept alive and for far too long the idea that people are a “race” and we have done so to our cost.  I did not think this way until I came to Amsterdam, and I became the person who was an outsider.  The Dutch students in MA courses with me asked me many things about what they had heard of American culture:

Do people really drive everywhere?  Yes.

Do people really eat lots of food on the run? You bet.  That’s why it’s called “fast” food.

Did you have lots of homework as a kid?  (Dutch children don’t get homework in primary school.)  Not an amount I ever considered a burden.

On tests and questionnaires are you really required to fill in your skin color?

To my shame and regret (and if anything demonstrates the power of indoctrination this does) I had never once thought about filling in that little bubble called “white”.  I’ll confess that in elementary school while sitting the Iowa Basic Skills Tests I considered being a nasty brat and filling in “other” just to see adults freak out.  It made me laugh as a child that there was a category called “other”.  My friends and I used to laugh together.  “What does ‘Other’ stand for???  Alien???  Green?  Purple?? Paisley???”

Well might the inheritors of the hegemony laugh.  Well might we dutifully bubble in our skin color, blithely ignoring that this was a sure sign that we were continuing a tradition of pre-selecting the statistics that would succeed, and those that would meet obstacle after obstacle.  It never dawned on me as a young educator to question that those bubbles sat on every test: an unspeaking symbol of a power structure concerned more with the color of my students’ skins and the numbers they turned out on tests, than with the minds behind their questioning eyes.  I remember feeling like the world had slowed the first time a Dutch student asked me that.  I felt as if time stood still and I saw my culture anew, with eyes that were given to me from a relative stranger.

Why would my skin color matter unless there was a vested interest in how certain skin colors act and perform?  Unless there was a belief that skin color was a valuable piece of information?

A society that values the knowledge of a person’s skin color believes that information about the people all colored that way can be gleaned.  It is a society that believes in totalising realities: realities that ignore significances, singularities, fine distinctions, the interplay of lives at the community level.  It is a society interested in giant headlines that can be applied across a vast space.

In the years since that colleague challenged my personal lingual ban I have come to believe even more strongly, (and it is a conviction that haunts me and causes me gripping fear) that #Blacklives will never matter until no one thinks to call them black again, because skin color is not a totalising reality, but it is a devastating fiction which the majority of the people I have ever known subscribe to. It allows people to leap to conclusions based on half-truths they once read coupled with a fanatical adherence to “facts” they read and memorized at some point in the hope that they could justify their mass-medially induced panic when confronted with a person who became America’s essential “other”.

My hope is not for color blindness, but for deeper nuance in how we observe the humans around us.  Rather than seeing a “black” man or woman, I want to see the person they are, and, yes, I suppose that if we’re being literal to the point of idiocy part of that is a skin color, but I want the meanings that have become attached to the skin color– the steadfast beliefs in violent natures, the ingrained fear, the empty efforts at integration which mask larger schemes of ever greater segregation to end.  For decades we’ve asked students to bubble in their skin colors.  For centuries we’ve registered, calculated, databased and collated “races”.  I am tired of assuming that what we’ve been doing in the US, focussing with ever greater intensity upon the skins of those we live, work, and play with, will result in greater appreciation of those the hegemony reinscribes in every day in its system of winners and losers.

And, no, I don’t believe that all lives matter.  I believe that each life has an integral reality to it, an INALIENABLE and INDELIBLE worth.  I believe that it’s time for those who retaliate to a hashtag with their own totalising effort at silencing dissent to a broken system to forget their indignation because it won’t serve in the present to fix that broken system.  Why don’t we, as a nation, try affirming that #BlackLivesMatter with MORE THAN WORDS– every one of us, because it’s going to take every last one of us– and why don’t we, then, once each life matters equally, teach our children what racism did when everyone used to believe it existed?  Perhaps giving a raceless world a try, once we’ve torn down our collective beliefs about races, about what we think painting race with such broad brush strokes has meant will turn the tide of malice.  The clash matters.  It matters that people are being shot for no reason, that people are dying in police custody from neglect, and it matters that this has gone on for centuries.  It matters that every human in the US is allowed to bear arms but certain children aren’t allowed to have toy guns in parks. Just as the blood of our police officers on the hands of those whose hate matches the hateful wrongs done a populace because of race also matters. These are separate instances of miscarriages of justice, but they are also terribly symbolic to the historical treatment people labeled “colored” in the US have received for centuries, and of the retaliatory violence such mistreatment inspires.  Neither works, all of it erodes our country, our cities, our communities, and our homes.

But we can no longer turn indignant when our citizens, our brother and sister Americans, cry foul.  It is time to hear them all because their voices are like unto mine– of equal value– and I want to hear the words of my brothers and sisters even if it causes me pain.  I grieve for the families of police officers killed in the line of duty.  I grieve for the violent deaths that happen every live long day in our cities.  The US has long had a problem with violence and also with race, and this blog is about the race problem.  Let us acknowledge where we have all failed to build the society we all want for our families and friends of every skin color, and then let us try to undo the ideology that led us there: let us let go together of believing that race has broad spectrum meaning or value to the entire United States.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on July 22, 2016.

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